The virtues of network convergence are widely extolled, says Steve Kennedy, but does it make business sense, or is it just the latest technology fad?
Putting voice and data applications onto a single network is not simple. It requires significant effort from the telecoms provider and often involves redesigning a user's network infrastructure. But by enabling organisations to take a more flexible approach to their network, considerable cost savings can be made.
What many people do not realise is that there are three levels of convergence: non-convergence, co-operative convergence and intelligent convergence, and, like yoga, it makes sense to join the beginners' class.
Non-convergence is where a company has networks dedicated for different purposes, such as the internet, voice communications or a virtual private network. This can be inefficient as the company pays for multiple networks regardless of capacity used.
Co-operative convergence is the most common set-up today. Large corporations and public sector organisations work with carrier partners to tailor-make a set of metrics for all their network traffic. These ensure that business-critical data is prioritised over the shared network.
Next will come intelligent convergence - the yoga masterclass - where the intelligence is in the carrier's national network itself. The network will ascertain the type of traffic that is passing across it, and treat it in the appropriate manner. The carrier will establish a number of metric sets and the customer will buy "off the rack". This will drive down the cost of convergence as well as simplifying it, making it more accessible, particularly to smaller businesses.
For any of these types of convergence to work, a carrier needs to support quality of service metrics. IP on its own is not enough, so multi-protocol label switching (MPLS) has been developed to ensure specific types of data cross networks in the best way.
This may seem unnecessary, but if you think of the internet as a roadmap of the UK, you would not dream of heading off on your scooter from Kent and expect to arrive in Liverpool on time without a map. Nor should you expect your data packets to find the best route and arrive in the right order without a little guidance.
MPLS also allows different priorities to be set for each category of data - like a Ferrari getting priority over a scooter at the traffic lights.
Convergence sounds ingenious, so why is it not more widespread? One reason is that an organisation needs to make sure that the upheaval and investment necessary to introduce it do not outweigh the benefits. For example, a single site moving to a voice over IP local area network configuration using IP phones may need to completely re-engineer the Lan. There may be other reasons why an organisation would want to do this, but convergence on its own will probably not justify the upheaval.
Multi-site organisations may realise gains more immediately by saving on intersite costs, with a Wan or tailor-built Ethernet network, although again this may require a sizeable initial outlay in infrastructure investment before savings can be achieved.
If VoIP appeals primarily for reasons of cost, organisations may find that services such as carrier pre-select and wholesale line rental may give more immediate savings.
But convergence is certainly not all hype. Some industry sectors are taking the proposition to a new level. Broadcasters such as GWR (the group that recently merged with Capital Radio) have, in the past year, invested in technology firsts that have included multicasting and converging broadcast data on to the single corporate network.
This means that broadcast traffic, the lifeblood of any radio company, is sharing a network with voice traffic, e-mail and corporate applications. That is an exciting prospect, and proof that one powerful network can be sufficient for any organisation.
Keep your eyes on the media sector. Often the first to jump at new technologies, media companies have put a lot of effort into making convergence work for them, and are already reaping the rewards.
The raison-d'être of convergence is to simplify networks and increase bandwidth flexibility, but users need to ensure that they will achieve savings before taking the convergence route. If telecoms suppliers try to convince you that convergence is essential for your business, make sure they understand your business and not just their own before you put your network in their hands.
Steve Kennedy is head of technology futures at telecoms and internet provider Thus